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Contiki East Africa Safari – Day 3: Maasai Mara

Jambo from Masai Mara!

After lunch at our camp, we boarded our safari vehicles to head out to our first game drive! Since our camp was already technically in Masai Mara our roofs were popped up so we got some extra fresh air and were able to stand up and look out instead of just crowding next to the window in the vehicle. The vehicles are the same type for the whole trip (Kenya and Tanzania) and are essentially large, modified Toyota Land Cruisers with windows that slide open for natural A/C and six seats in the back with an aisle so each person gets their own window. The roof is raised from the standard height of the Land Cruiser, so these are definitely specialty vehicles. They also have power outlets and a cooler, for our use throughout the day. They are quite luxurious & better than I expected!

Now to the fun stuff – our first game drive! After about a 15 minute drive, we were on the main road towards the animals and immediately were treated to our first animals in the reserve, zebras! There were dozens of them and we had a mini photo shoot for about 10 minutes, which in hindsight was hilarious because zebras are literally everywhere. You can’t drive for more than five minutes without seeing at least one. Our driver, Dennis, humored us and let us take pictures until we were ready to move on. He said that happens every time and is expected when people first start their safari. 

We drove another few minutes before we saw our first elephants, something else we would learn would become a somewhat common occurrence, but again were indulged to have another photo shoot of the animals. 

Elephants are one of the big five animals that people always try to find on their safaris. They are the five animals that the poachers would always hunt, and unfortunately, some of them are on the verge of extinction. The big five are:

  1. Elephants

  2. Lions

  3. Cape Buffalo

  4. Rhino (Black or White)

  5. Leopard

The next animals we saw were the cape buffalo, another of the big five, but by this point we got the point that we would see a lot of these animals and only took a few pictures before moving on. That, however, was two of the big five down within the first half hour of our safari – a fantastic start! We then passed some giraffes and impalas, something I thought was a made up name Chevy has for a car. The impalas are absolutely stunning and graceful animals. I could watch them graze for hours and, when they run, their gate is so smooth.

After a few more minutes, our trip manager, Haron, pulled next to a safari vehicle going the other way and had a conversation with the driver and the search was on for our next animal! All of a sudden, we were among a dozen vehicles that converged around an area to see a family of five cheetahs. Because Masai Mara is a reserve, we were able to go off roading which we can’t do in any other park we visit, so we were able to get up and close with the cheetahs. Not only did they walk past our vehicle, but we were able to drive alongside them for a bit.

I stopped to take a quick look at the pictures I had taken so far and knew that the investment I made by buying a proper camera (Sony RX10 Mark III) was worth it! We kept driving and passed a lot more zebras before coming face to face with a male and female lion! These were the animals I was most excited to see on safari, so to see them the first day was a great feeling. It was also the third animal of the Big Five, within an hour and a half of the start of our safari! Again, because it was a reserve, we were able to go off roading and see the lions up and close, including seeing the inside of the male lion’s mouth while he was yawning.

After a prolonged photo shoot, the lions laid down and we were on the road again in search of our next animal, where we saw our first ostrich. 

We kept driving past a few elephants before we were treated to a site I will never forget – a lioness eating a zebra carcass while a hyena stalked it to try to get a nibble. The lion got up and with one roar sent the hyena cowering behind a bush where it tried to work up courage to have another go at it. The lioness laid back down to enjoy the carcass as if nothing happened. We were so close to the lioness that we could almost pet it. 

After we took a seemingly combined 10,000 pictures of the natural spectacle of a lioness eating her prey, we hit the road again to begin heading back to our camp. It was almost 6:00 PM and we need to be at the hotel by ~6:30 PM or Contiki could get fined by the Park Rangers. They try to minimize the number of people on the road after dusk so they can aggressively go after poaches which tend to operate under the stealth of night. We came across a herd of elephants on the way back which crossed the road our vehicle was traveling on, giving us quite an intimate experience! We even were able to see a few baby elephants nursing. The elephants walk much slower than I thought they would, almost at a meandering pace.

After the herd of elephants crossed the road, we proceeded towards the hotel passing a few more zebras and impalas along the way.

Then, just as I put my camera away for the evening, we saw the rarest of the Big Five, the elusive black rhino – one of five in the entire Masai Mara! Unfortunately, it went into the bush before any of us could get decent pictures but that was four of the Big Five in less than four hours on our first day – something that exceeded our wildest expectations. 

We made it back to the tented campsite shortly thereafter where we had a fantastic buffet dinner of a mix of Kenyan and Western foods before heading back to our rooms for bed. We have a 4:30 AM alarm tomorrow for a hot air balloon ride over Masai Mara!

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